Expect a sweet peach crop out of the Hill Country this year
FREDERICKSBURG — For Pam and Joe Holzworth of Pasadena, a stop at the Studebaker Farms peach stand on Highway 290 was the sweet finale to their Hill Country getaway.
“I have to eat them over a sink they’re so juicy,” Pam said as her husband dug out bills for a box of regals. She also was stocking up for favorite summertime treats, such as peach cobbler and frozen peaches blended into fruity cocktails.
The couple are in luck this year. Despite a season marked by early and late freezes, rain dumps and heavy spring winds, just about every peach tree in just about every Hill Country orchard is full of ripe or ripening fruit.
“We’ve been skating through with a lot of blessings here,” grower Russ Studebaker said, pointing out varieties he’d felt for sure would fail.
The Studebakers planted their first trees about 25 years ago, picking up 60 acres when land was cheap.
Last week, he steered his 1961 Studebaker pickup through rows of newer and older trees. Lucas Mackan, a local college student, loaded peaches directly into boxes, following Studebaker’s guidelines: pick when the fruit has gone from green to blush and the coloring is either creamy or freckled red.
“That’s what keeps us in business,” Studebaker said. “You can’t pick a peach green. It won’t ripen fully.”
The best may be yet to come, as later-season varieties such as lorings, dixilands, red globes and ouachita gold (a yellow-skinned variety with a cult following) look to be in abundant supply.
Down the road a few miles, Jamey Vogel of Vogel Orchard stopped short of predicting a record crop. But he said this year’s looks at least as good as the last really good crop — in 2015 — and has the potential to match the super good crop of 2010.
It’s been a nice surprise.
“In early March, we thought we were going to lose the whole crop,” he said. “We had a late winter blast. We had three mornings that were in the 20s.”
Hill Country peaches have a big following for a lot of reasons.
The soils are said to be rich in flavor-enhancing minerals from deposits left by an ancient sea. The elevation allows for cool nights that provide winter “chill hours” necessary for buds to break dormancy. The region is on the edge of a Texas arid zone, which makes for a higher sugar content than most other peaches.
But Texas weather is notoriously fickle.
A warm winter can mean barren trees.
What’s blossomed into a hearty crop can be wiped out by an Easter freeze.
Growers never know when Mother Nature will pound their orchards with hail.
Vogel’s theory is that the rains that preceded this year’s March freeze kept humidity levels high.
“When you really get the damage in the winter from a late freeze is when you have real low humidity,” he said.
Like many Hill Country peach orchards, Vogel’s is family-owned.
His parents, George and Nelda, planted their first trees in 1953. They opened a roadside stand in 1972, joining a tourist-driven trade that’s taken off over the last 20 years.
In his opinion, the exploding Hill Country wine scene — the region now ranks second to California’s Napa Valley for wine tourism — has boosted business even more.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, the wine industry is taking over. It’s like they’re taking away from us.’ But it’s really added to the traffic here,” Vogel said. “The folks who buy wine also buy peaches.”
It’s all made a destination out of what a few generations ago was an isolated community of German immigrants who mostly grew cotton.
Mark Wieser, co-founder of the Fischer & Wieser brand of specialty jams and sauces and owner of Fredericksburg’s Das Peach Haus, traces the start of the Fredericksburg peach industry to a post-World War I bust in cotton prices.
In 1926, strapped suppliers called about 450 farmers to a meeting at the courthouse, and told them they needed to find a new, money-making crop.
Wieser’s father, who came from a fruit-growing region on the German-Swiss border, suggested fruit. By 1935, the region had the foundation of its current peach industry. He planted the first peach orchard in 1928.
By junior high school, Mark Wieser figured out that sitting out by the side of the road with a sign touting fresh peaches could be lucrative. One day he made about $85, which he said is the equivalent of about $850 today.
And there turned out to be plenty of business to go around.
Don Eckhardt, now 87, said his parents were among the other peach pioneers, starting with about seven acres of Alberta peach trees in the 1930s. Acreage expanded until the family decided it was getting to be too much. The family now has about 50 acres behind their new stand on U.S. Highway 87.
It wasn’t always easy. The family once went consecutive seven years without a crop. Another year they got wiped out by hail.
“Something that looks very prosperous — in a moment’s time, we were through,” Eckhardt said.
He recalled loading a truck with peaches and driving down country roads to be at the San Antonio market by 4 a.m.
Now the market comes to them, including the fellow Fredericksburg old-timer who stopped by to fill a bag with peaches and speak for a few minutes in German.
“We went from wholesaling to retail,” Eckhardt said with a smile. “And we like it a lot better.”